Many years ago as a young doctor, it seemed that autoimmune disease was relatively rare. However, this dreaded disease has become the most prevalent cause of chronic illness in our land, affecting over 23 million Americans. Autoimmune disease is basically a case of a confused immune system. The main role of the immune system is to protect the body from outside invaders, such as viruses and bacteria. Think of it as our own personal homeland security department. The immune system constantly roams the body looking for any breaches in security. When it detects an outside invader, it sends out alarm bells which then cause “antibodies” to swoop down on the uninvited invader. Unfortunately, every now and then, the security system gets confused and it mistakenly thinks that a part of our normal body is “non-self” and it attacks the innocent normal tissue with antibodies, often rendering the attacked tissue seriously harmed, or even useless. Some examples would be when the immune system attacks the pancreas it causes that organ to shut down, which leads to type 1 diabetes. Likewise, the confused and overly ambitious immune system may attack the gut- causing Crohn’s disease; the thyroid- causing Grave’s thyroiditis; or the joints- causing rheumatoid arthritis. Other forms of autoimmune disease include lupus, celiac disease, MS, blood disorders, and myasthenia gravis. In fact, there are now over a hundred known autoimmune diseases, and there are approximately forty more diseases which are suspected of being autoimmune in nature. These diseases are often crippling, and they usually last a lifetime.
What causes the immune system to go haywire? Since autoimmune disease seems to run in some families, there seems to be a genetic predisposition. However, there is often a trigger such as a virus, which starts the ball rolling down the path of immune dysfunction. Other triggers are thought to be chronic stress, antibiotics, poor diets, gut health, alterations in the “human microbiome,” and toxins (including heavy metals and pesticides).
Just a few words about the human microbiome: this has emerged as one of the hottest areas of medical research these days. It has to do with the critters that live on us and in us. In fact, there are more bacterial cells in your body than human cells! Establishing and maintaining a proper mix of “good bacteria,” “bad bacteria,” and yeast is vitally important for overall health including immune regulation. In fact, C-section babies have been found to have more autoimmune disease than vaginal birth babies. The reason for this is that the C-section babies don’t get colonized with the bacteria from the vaginal vault like vaginal birth babies, which goes on the affect their “microbiome” and thus their propensity to get autoimmune disease.
Autoimmune disease may be extremely difficult to treat. There are many drugs out on the market these days, which may be helpful, but many of them may have a significant side effect profile. I have found that a plan which includes significant dietary changes, detoxification, stress reduction, treating any occult infections, and optimizing the microbiome may be quite helpful in bringing about some relief for many of these patients.
As with many difficult to treat diseases, an integrative medical approach, which utilizes multiple modalities, as well as a functional approach, which looks for and treats the underlying root cause may be a valuable adjunct to the treatment plan for patients with autoimmune disease.